The Dawn of Unlimited Entertainment: How Blockbuster Changed Viewers

The mom-and-pop stores that preceded the now-dead rental chain had character–but made you bring the videos back the very next day.
Steve Snodgrass/Flickr

Before Blockbuster Video, people in my hometown rented their movies for $1 at one of several strip-mall establishments owned by Korean or Vietnamese immigrants. They'd always be tucked next to a baseball card store or a karate studio. Trips to pick out the night's entertainment would always start out as a treat. I'd be out with my dad. The prospect of staying up later than my bedtime was on the horizon. And I imagined all sorts of entertainment delights awaiting us inside. 

But on those earliest trips, the video store was also an environment of extreme scarcity. Besides limiting me to PG movies, my family chose Betamax during the format wars. I don't remember how long they held on, but past the point when VHS outnumbered Beta on the shelves. We would stand in the small section with the smaller cassettes, next to the mysterious curtained section behind which I knew not what. And if there was a new release we wanted to see the odds of snagging it from the shelf at the right moment made rare victories seem like slot machine jackpots. 

(Hurray! Back to the Future Part II!)

The rhythm of movie rentals was different in those days. You'd rent in the early evening, right after school or work if you wanted to maximize your selection. You'd watch the movie that night, after dinner, and maybe your parents would watch another one after you went to bed. One way or another, everything you rented was due back by 3 p.m. the next day, or you'd have to pay a late fee. Usually my dad would take the movies back before work, but I remember occasions when my mom and I would be rushing to the movie store to avoid the late fee. 

Even after we got VHS, the selection at those mom-and-pop stories left something to be desired. Eventually there were three or four within a few miles of our house, and sometimes if you didn't find anything at one you'd visit a competitor or two. The name of the one closest to our house escapes me, because my mom called it Frank's 5, the conceit being that they only ever had five movies available. It will always be dear to my heart because when it opened, the immigrant owners, whose English was broken at best, had this enormous "T" section. Looking for The Goonies? That was in the "T" section for the first month or so. Over the years we came to know them as very nice, hardworking people, and I wonder where they are today. They didn't last long when Blockbuster opened.

It's common to note the expansive selection Blockbuster offered, compared to what had been available before, and that was true. What I remember, as well, was the sticker shock. The price point went through so many iterations that I can't remember them all, and I suspect that they varied by location as the local Blockbuster endeavored to put as many mom-and-pops as possible out of business. But I do remember my parents arguing about the value proposition. Dad: "Blockbuster costs more than twice as much!" Mom: "But you get to keep it for three days." 

At first, it seemed like a no-brainer to me. Cheaper was better. Why would you need a movie for three days? You rent it, take it home, eat dinner, watch it, and go to bed.

Then dad takes it back in the morning. 

But in hindsight, that was a game-changer, because when my family rented from Blockbuster, and had the option to watch that night or the next night, we got used to it.*

There were times when the discretion came in handy. (Mom: "Oh, so now that you remember the Lakers are playing tonight you're glad that we got the two day rental.") 

Last summer, I listened to Ted Sarandos, the chief content officer at Netflix, talk about their original TV shows, and the way they release a whole season of episodes all at once to be watched on demand. He thinks it's game-changing, that other content providers will be forced to start doing it to compete, because people like it. 

I agree, not only because that's how I like to watch television now, but because back in the day, I remember how Blockbuster leveraged its bigger inventory to let people rent movies for multiple days, how people found they liked being able to do that, and how even mom-and-pops without enough videos to make that a viable strategy tried to match them, because consumers had become accustomed to it. 

Today, our options for "watch when you want" are far broader than Netflix, of course, and everything from video rentals themselves to DVRs to Internet streaming played a role in getting us to where we are today. But Blockbuster played a part too, and in my family, it probably did more than anything else to accustom us to watching what we wanted to watch on a time frame more flexible than today.

* Yes, in theory we could've kept the "Frank's 5" movies for two days, paid the late fee, and come out about the same. But psychologically, it wasn't the same as all, at least in my family. You didn't plan to pay the late fee. The deadline was the deadline! 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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